Taking to the streets to stem rising tide of city’s homeless youth

Regrettably I must write this column.

I had hoped not to.

It arises from our collective failing as a community to properly support those in deep need. Our governments have pledged but not delivered to help those on our streets.

The median age of our homeless population is in its 40s. But each night, between 500 and 1,000 young people sleep outside. The least I can do is to give over one night to do the same, and to ask for your support in doing so.

Covenant House Vancouver is 20 years old now, having helped 20,000 in our midst, and I wish it weren’t the venerable presence it needs to be.

Each year it organizes an Executive Sleep Out to raise funds for its crisis program. The word crisis is overused in our society but not in this context.

Consider the data Covenant House amassed from the last year alone:

•399 youth stayed in the crisis program for food and shelter in the overrun 59-bed facility. There they created individual plans to help find a job, upgrade education and skills, and secure safe shelter.

•574 were helped by the House’s outreach teams for food, first aid and naloxone, to support them with visits to the hospital, arranging appointments, and guiding their lives if they don’t feel ready to come off the streets.

•897 came to the House’s drop-in facilities for food, to arrange access to mental health and addictions support and counselling, and to get a brief break from the enervating life on the street.

It is a fallacy that these children of Vancouver – and they are ours, truly – have great agency in their lives. What they have experienced tells of trauma, exploitation, suffering, addiction and need. Again, some data:

•70% witnessed family violence;

•50% struggle with substance abuse;

•50%, at least, age out of foster care at age 19 and are left to their devices with no means of income or support;

•39% deal with mental illness; and

•33% have been sexually exploited, some of them as victims of human trafficking.

This is not the city we want, probably not even the city we think we would ever have. Yet our governments are either great pretenders (remember the mayor’s 2008 promise to end homelessness by 2015?), providers of lip service, or ill-equipped to tackle the causes and effects and generate the proper policies and practices to mitigate the deepening damage.

Homelessness grows in the city – the last count was 2,138 in Vancouver out of a total of 3,605 in Metro Vancouver, a 30% rise since the last election.

Covenant House should be a service we do not need, but there is no doubt that its longer-term plans to expand its programming will be met with high demand. Our best foot forward is to help, because waiting for government only perpetuates the fatalities (140 in B.C. in 2015) and suffering.

Last week was Homelessness Action Week, and while there are new funds planned to help create shelter provincially and a new ministry to specifically tackle addictions and their impact in our province, the swiftest action is to get people off the street and into services that can help and give them a new set of chances.

On the night of November 16, I would prefer to be in a warm bed, after a full meal and perhaps an evening of entertainment or relaxation. I know I would feel secure, undisturbed, and by morning well rested for the day ahead. That is not what the hundreds of young people on our streets will experience, so it is a meagre measure for me to be out in the cold in a sleeping bag on a bed of cardboard for several hours.

I’d like to say I won’t need to do this again, but I doubt it.

While you can provide funds to anyone – and, by the way, more are needed for the 60-person Executive Sleep-Out – my personal online page for donations is: http://support.covenanthousebc.org/goto/KirkLaPointe. If you have a problem in getting the donation through, contact me at klapointe@biv.com, and I’ll get the funds to the right place. Their place. 

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.